A headache has long been the classic excuse to say “no” to sex. But if your partner suffers from migraines, you may hear that excuse less often.
Why? Migraine sufferers have stronger sexual desire than people who get only normal tension headaches, report Wake Forest University researcher Timothy T. Houle, PhD, and colleagues.
"Migraine is a cluster of quirks that occur together," Houle says. "Migraine sufferers are more susceptible to being depressed, and suffer more sleep abnormalities, than people who don't get migraines. And now, you can add sexual desire to this list of symptoms that may co-occur with migraines."
Houle and colleagues studied 37 women and 31 men who reported having had headaches. Their average age was 24; 90 percent were unmarried. Examination showed that 23 of the study participants suffered migraines, while 36 had nothing worse than tension headaches.
Migraines vs. Tension Headaches
Each person filled out a standardized questionnaire that evaluates sexual desire. They also rated themselves on how much more or less sexual desire they had than an average person.
"We discovered that migraine subjects reported higher levels of desire than tension-type headache counterparts," Houle says. "It seems as if the migraine subjects knew this already. When asked to rate their level of sex desire, they thought they had more than other people."
Overall, the men had 24 percent more sexual desire than the women, regardless of headache type.
But both men and women with migraines had 20 percent more sexual desire than those without.
"That difference was maintained across gender," Houle says. "This results in female migraine sufferers being quite like normal males in sexual desire."
Orgasm: A Migraine Cure?
This is far from the first time scientists have made the counterintuitive link between sex and migraine headaches. The father of neurology, 17th century doctor Thomas Willis, described a robust sexual appetite in his historical headache patient, Lady Catherine, says James R. Couch, MD, PhD.
Couch, chairman of the neurology department at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, has famously described what his peers call "the Couch treatment" for migraine. Couch has found that some people's migraine headaches go away when they have an orgasm.
Couch tells WebMD he was recruiting migraine patients for a drug study when he met a distinguished 40-year-old woman who worked as a midlevel manager for the state of Illinois.
"She said, 'If I can just have a good, banging orgasm, it can stop my migraine cold. But my husband just divorced me. I don't need a pill; I just need a phone number,'" Couch recalls.
This encounter led Couch to ask 82 other female patients if they ever had sex during a migraine -- and, if they did, what happened to their headache.
"It appears that for a small group of people who suffer migraines -- perhaps 20 percent -- one physiologic process -- orgasm -- will turn off another physiological process -- migraine," he says. "I followed up with this for some years. I always came up with the same thing: The occasional patient's migraine would go away after orgasm."
Couch also found another way sex was linked to migraine. Many migraine sufferers experience aura -- often described as a visual experience of sparkling light. But sometimes, Couch says, premigraine aura is experienced as a mood. For most of these people, it's an irritable mood. But for some, it's a euphoric or hyperenergetic mood.
"One of my patients says, 'My husband loves it the day before my headache. My sex drive goes through the roof,'" Couch says.
Sex-Migraine Link: New Treatment Clue?
Houle says Couch's work made him wonder about the link between sex and migraines. Recent studies, he says, show migraine headaches are linked to low levels in the brain of the chemical signal serotonin.
People with clinical depression also have low serotonin levels. Some antidepressant drugs, such as Prozac, raise levels of this brain chemical, but can cause loss of sexual desire and sexual dysfunction. The newest class of migraine drugs, triptans, also affect serotonin levels.
The finding that migraine sufferers have increased sexual desire strengthens the link between serotonin levels and migraine, Houle says.
"Every piece of information about the migraine experience helps us understand what the migraine is like in the brain and in the body," he says. "This, we hope, will lead to improved treatment and management. And besides, it is just plain interesting.”
Houle and colleagues report their findings in the June issue of the journal Headache.
By Daniel J. DeNoon, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
SOURCES: Houle, T.T. Headache, June 2006; vol: 46 pp 983-990. Timothy T. Houle, PhD, research assistant professor, Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, N.C.James R. Couch, MD, PhD, professor and chair of neurology, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.